Leaders who have presided over policy disasters typically respond in one of three ways. Some of them leave office and retire to their well-feathered nests, where they hibernate in silence. Others spray the blame around, including at those who advised them against the original folly, refusing to admit responsibility for it, and yet still claiming that the outcome was better than if they had not committed it, and claiming that now, things have changed. Others again adhere to the ‘never apologise, never explain’ school of public policy, refusing to admit they were wrong, and suggesting they would do the same again, given the opportunity.
George W. Bush belongs to the first lot and John Howard belongs to the last. Tony Blair is in the middle. Howard spared himself the public exposure of an inquiry into Australia’s role in the invasion of Iraq in 2003 simply by refusing to hold one, because he could, and his successors have done the same. As a result, his unilateral expansion in 2001 of the application of the Anzus treaty to cover a global war on terror still applies, and continues to undermine any challenge to the legitimacy of Australia’s subsequent deployments in Iraq and Syria. Bush steers clear of the subject, leaving it to his former Vice-President Dick Cheney to restate his Administration’s position about the extraordinary privilege that attaches to an American president in wartime. This, if a bill to amend the war powers passes the Congress in August, is likely to set it in legal cement.
Tony Blair is another matter. A professed Christian, he used every justification he could concoct for overthrowing and executing Saddam Hussein and reducing Iraq to a failed state. He subsequently rejected responsibility for assertions about Iraq’s weapons that even people outside government could tell were lies. Some inside government resigned over them, and weapons investigator Dr David Kelly died in unexplained circumstances involving them. Blair subsequently feathered his nest very nicely.
Now, anticipating Sir John Chilcott’s report on the Iraq invasion (expected for release in July, after a six-year gestation) Blair is rebranding himself as a repentant sinner, a mere erring human, who has learned from his mistakes and who, having seen the forces released by Saddam’s removal, became more restrained in his response to the regime changes that followed the Arab spring of 2011-12. He was, of course, out of government by then, and ludicrously given his record, was for eight years until 2015 the Middle East peace envoy of the Quartet (UN, US, EU, and Russia). http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/politics/tony-blair/11633511/Tony-Blair-resigns-as-Middle-East-peace-envoy.html. Now, he has learned to favour evolution, not revolution.
But Blair’s new language shows him still dodging responsibility: ‘to be honest’, he says, ‘for sure’ this, and ‘quite frankly’ that. He regrets the way Saddam Hussein ‘was removed’, he says: not who did it. ‘We underestimated’, he says, the region and the consequences of invading it: we, not I. IS has origins decades-old, he says: implying it started before his government. Yet Middle East authority Jürgen Todenhöffer (My Journey into the Heart of terror: Ten Days in the Islamic State, 2016) says unequivocally that ISIS is ‘the child of the 2003 Iraq War’, born of the struggle for power after Blair’s UK (and the US and Australia) invaded Iraq.
So having absolved himself of responsibility for the regrettable state of affairs in Iraq, Blair remains unrepentant, and reverting to type, recommends another invasion. Western troops can defeat IS in Iraq and Syria, he says, and a ‘proper’ ground war is the only way to do it. It has not occurred to him, apparently, that Russia and China have interests in suppressing IS that equal those of the UK and the US, and that British realism could be deployed here to positive effect. Nothing has really changed in Blair’s mind. We should all rejoice that he is no longer in a position to exercise the war powers, although his successor David Cameron now says parliamentary opinion will no longer prevent him doing so too.
The only hope that remains against leaders who lust for invasion is next year’s entry into force of the crime of aggression, which could see them brought before the International Criminal Court to answer for their crimes.
Dr Alison Broinowski is Vice-President of Honest History and Vice-President of Australians for War Powers Reform